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Jason Greenblatt, Abraham Accords Architect, Talks Middle East Peace, a Nuclear Iran, and Misconceptions About the Israeli-Arab Conflict

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“You cannot imagine the pressure that came to bear on President Trump to not follow through with the decision,” recalls Jason Greenblatt, special envoy to the Middle East under Trump.

Greenblatt reflects on Trump’s historic decision to move Israel’s U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem. “He was getting calls from world leaders all over, essentially saying, ‘Blood is going to be spilled in the streets. You’re going to cause World War III. You’re going to alienate all of our allies.’ And what happened? Nothing.”

Greenblatt, author of “In the Path of Abraham,” was one of the chief architects of the Abraham Accords, a set of historic normalization agreements between Israel and a number of its Arab neighbors.

“Before the Abraham Accords were signed, you had former Secretary of State John Kerry actually say that peace between Israel and its Arab neighbors will never happen unless you solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” he says.

Greenblatt discusses the breadth of what the Abraham Accords accomplished, the threat of a nuclear Iran, and some of the many myths surrounding the Arab-Israeli conflict.

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Jan Jekielek:

Jason Greenblatt, such a pleasure to have you on American Thought Leaders.

Jason Greenblatt:

Thank you for having me.

Mr. Jekielek:

So first of all, congratulations on “In the Path of Abraham: How Donald Trump Made Peace in the Middle East–and How to Stop Joe Biden from Unmaking It.” I just finished reading the book this morning and I’ll use my trademark word, absolutely fascinating inside look. So thank you for that.

Mr. Greenblatt:

Thank you. I’m glad you read it. I’m glad you found it fascinating. And I’d love to talk to you about it.

Mr. Jekielek:

Well, so here we go. I like to start with something current, right? And this is something that of course figures into your book and all of these negotiations, and that’s the Iran deal, or the JCPOA, which is now in the process, again, of being negotiated. I always find it very interesting that Russia, in the midst of this Russia and Ukraine war, is the kind of broker there. What are your thoughts about what’s happening there right now?

Mr. Greenblatt:

It’s very dangerous. So first of all, what the Biden administration seems to not get is that the region, those directly affected by the Iranian regime threat, are against a deal—against this kind of deal. There are some voices that say a deal, even a bad deal, is better than no deal. Most people realize that’s not the case. The Iran deal basically allows Iran to have nuclear weapons once it burns off. People may not understand that. They think that it prevents Iran from having nuclear weapons, but there’s a sunset clause. And after that sunset clause, Iran is not prohibited from developing nuclear weapons. That’s one of the worst parts about the deal. The other thing is we should also not focus just on the nuclear threat, which is a big one, but it gives Iran, as it did under the Obama administration, a huge fortune of money, which they use to foment terrorism around the world, in particular, in the Middle East.

It’s how Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad and Hezbollah attack Israel. It’s how the Houthi terrorists, and we should use that word, even though the Biden administration took that designation away from the Houthis, but it’s how the Houthi terrorists attack our other allies, the UAE and Saudi Arabia. There are some Iran activities, malign activities, in Morocco and the Moroccan Sahara. They cause a lot of trouble with that money. So it’s a dangerous time for the region, it’s a dangerous time for America. Europeans, who are the ones we entrusted to negotiate this deal, Iran is now providing drones to Russia for Russia to use in Ukraine. So by standing by Iran, because they want to do business with Iran, the Europeans actually brought the problem right back into their backyard.

Mr. Jekielek:

For the benefit of our audience, you served as the White House’s special envoy to the Middle East. You were one of the key architects of the Abraham Accords. But you kind of come from a bit of an unusual background when it comes to doing this sort of thing. And so I’m giving you a chance for you to tell us a little bit about that.

Mr. Greenblatt:

Yes. So I’m a lawyer by training, I’m a retired lawyer for the moment. Business person. I worked for Donald Trump for 20 years in private practice. I was his chief legal officer. And one day, he won the election and asked me to join him at the White House and I did. He also brought on his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, who led the team, a remarkably talented person, also a lawyer by training, but a business person. David Friedman, the former U.S. ambassador to Israel, a lawyer by training. What all of us had was the trust of Donald Trump. We had a businessman’s approach and a legal approach, not a diplomatic approach. We were always diplomatic, but we weren’t constrained by years of diplomatic talks and certain talking points and rigid criteria by which people always felt this problem could be resolved. So like Donald Trump, we looked at things with a fresh pair of eyes.

Mr. Jekielek:

For Donald Trump to bring in someone who was key to many of his biggest negotiations in his business, a deal maker, so to speak, into this kind of a foray like that, to me makes a lot of sense. What maybe isn’t so obvious is that you also happen to be an observant Jew. Your whole team was Jewish and that’s interesting.

Mr. Greenblatt:

Yes. So if there were two criticisms that the mainstream media pointed in our direction when we were appointed. One was that we were not diplomats, we had no diplomatic experience. And the other was indeed that we were observant Jews, proud supporters of Israel, each of us. And they felt that that was the wrong choice. And my answer, which I’m much more certain about today than I was when we were appointed, was several fold. Number one, look at the results. The Abraham Accords happened, the first historic peace agreements between Israel and its Arab neighbors in many decades. So that certainly was not a blocking factor.

And the second is I only found respect and comradery from the Arab countries for me being an observant Jew. We understood each other right away, whether it was because I kept a special diet as they did, whether I needed a place to pray from time to time, as they do, whether we had many holidays, as they do. There was this immediate, almost a brotherhood that was established. And I not only didn’t see it as a negative, I only found it to be a positive. That’s not to say that somebody who’s not Jewish or not observant can’t be equally skilled and do what we did, but for those who charged that it was a bad thing for Donald Trump to bring in three observant Jews, I say quite the opposite, that the region and we got along very, very well.

Mr. Jekielek:

You have this wonderful little anecdote, right at the end of the book, that kind of speaks to what you’re talking about right now, where you’re getting the call and you’re about to do the Kaddish you have to decide, am I going to take the call? And it turns out that the Muslim on the other end is very, very understanding of your situation.

Mr. Greenblatt:

The reason I ended the book with that is really to prove the point of what you just asked, which is we can’t pretend religion doesn’t play a very, very important role in the region, not just in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but in the region. So when my Muslim friend, who’s a leading government figure in the region, realized that I was in synagogue, he almost felt embarrassed to have interrupted me. It’s not his fault, he had no idea where I was at the moment. But when I explained to him that I couldn’t speak at that time and that I was having such a hard time reaching him, could we please reschedule the call? He bent over backwards to make sure that I could go do my prayers and he would make sure that he was fully available as soon as the prayer services were over. And that’s just time and time again what I experienced in the region, I should also stress, including from the Palestinians.

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Well, so let’s talk about the Abraham Accords. First of all, we’ve heard the term. I have a general sense, of course, of what they are, but I don’t think that many people fully understand what happened and what is the breadth of what the Abraham Accords represent and actually managed to accomplish.

Mr. Greenblatt:

So the Abraham Accords are what are referred to as normalization agreements between Israel and some Arab countries, notably Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and Morocco, as well as Sudan. I’ll leave Sudan out because I didn’t work on Sudan at all. Some criticize and say they’re not really peace agreements because Israel and those countries were never at war. And technically that may be true. No Emirati that I’m aware of, probably accurate to say, ever killed an Israeli and vice versa. Same with Bahrain, probably same with Morocco. But what people don’t understand is there was never any kind of formal relationship between the countries. They were considered enemies. You couldn’t travel back and forth. You couldn’t do business back and forth. You wouldn’t have phone connections. So it opened up an entire new life for millions of people. Now you have the ability to travel back and forth, have friendships, do business together, share culture, put satellites or rockets, send them to the moon together.

I have a podcast on “Newsweek” I just aired an episode where an Israeli NGO together with the United Arab Emirates government, Albania, Qatar, who is not a signator yet to the Abraham Accords, worked together to save about 167 Afghans a year ago when the Taliban took over Afghanistan. That might have been the first partnership between an Arab country and Israel working to save Muslims, let alone from a country like Afghanistan, which is an enemy state to Israel and there’s zero diplomatic relationships. So for people who criticize it and say it’s not such a big deal, I challenge them to find a better example of a peace agreement. The life-changing experiences that people now have because of the Abraham Accords could really take your breath away.

Mr. Jekielek:

I guess the philosophy behind what ended up being the Abraham Accords was unusual, different from what had been tried before. And most notably, this idea that you would have to fix the Palestinian-Israeli conflict first, before anything else could be done in the Middle East. And you guys took a very, very different approach. So tell me a little bit about how you came to this.

Mr. Greenblatt:

So pretty recent before the Abraham Accords were signed, you had former Secretary of State John Kerry actually say that peace between Israel and its Arab neighbors will never happen unless you solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

[Sound bite/John Kerry]:

I’ve heard several prominent politicians in Israel sometimes saying, “Well, the Arab world’s in a different place now. We just have to reach out to them and we can work some things with the Arab world and we’ll deal with the Palestinians.” No, no, no, and no. I can tell you that reaffirmed, even in the last week, as I have talked to leaders of the Arab community, there will be no advanced and separate peace with the Arab world without the Palestinian process and Palestinian peace. Everybody needs to understand that. That is a hard reality.

Mr. Greenblatt:

And that might have been true 20, 30, 40 years ago. Obviously Egypt and Jordan had signed peace agreements with Israel. Whenever I went through the Arab countries in 2017 and ’18 and even part of ’19, I would ask them and say, “Why won’t you sign if they’ve signed already?” And there were various excuses that were being used, but nobody ever really gave me that answer that Secretary Kerry had said, which is it’ll never happen. Instead, the attitude that I saw was they were struggling to figure out how to make it happen. You never really know if it’s going to happen or not. And by the way, I should make clear, we weren’t trying to leave the Palestinians out. The initial goal was to make a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians, and Israel and those of its Arab neighbors that were realistic to make peace agreements with.

It wasn’t realistic to have a peace agreement between Israel and Syria at the moment. Lebanon, probably. Certain other countries. But it wasn’t farfetched at all to see peace agreements or normalization agreements between Israel and the UAE, even Saudi Arabia and Qatar, although they didn’t yet sign, certainly Morocco and Bahrain. So our view, and we told the Palestinians, was the region has changed for a lot of different reasons, including the Iran threat, but also many other reasons. The young population, the Arab countries are completely revamping their economies away from oil, into a future of technology and all sorts of other changes. So the Palestinians could either join us in seeing whether or not we can make these peace agreements or they could decide not to participate and we would continue to work on it. Unfortunately, the Palestinians chose to disassociate themselves with any of our efforts and we just kept our heads down and kept working on it.

Mr. Jekielek:

But you kind of expected it.

Mr. Greenblatt:

It depended on the day. In order to be a diplomat, you have to be an optimist, a realist and a pessimist all at the same moment. And there were days, especially those days that I spent with ordinary Palestinians, not the leadership, if rockets weren’t flying from Gaza, from the terrorist Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad, when I would hear positive messaging coming out of Palestinians, I was optimistic, I was hopeful. But at the same time, as time went on throughout 2017, I realized more and more two things. One, something that people don’t talk about very often, which is that there are really two Palestinian leaderships. There’s a leadership in Ramallah, which oversees the Palestinians in what I call Judea Samaria, what others call the West Bank. And then there’s a so-called leadership in Gaza that rules over with an iron fist two million Palestinians, really makes their lives miserable.

So even in a perfect scenario, if we were able to get President Abbas and then Prime Minister Netanyahu into a room with a plan that both sides would sort of scratch their head and say, “Wow, Donald Trump, how did you come up with something that we could actually negotiate on?” We also realized that you still had two million Palestinians who would almost certainly be left out of the deal because Hamas has done nothing but vow to destroy Israel. But we still worked at it. 

The other issue that people forget about, or don’t understand is that ultimately President Abbas may say that there are no preconditions to negotiations with Israel, but he has his wishlist, he has his demands, but the demands that he’s made are not realistic. They include, for example, all of East Jerusalem becoming the Palestinian capital. All of East Jerusalem would include Judaism’s holiest places, the Temple Mount, which is also holy to Muslims, the Western Wall itself, which is the place that Jews are allowed to pray at.

People may not realize, perhaps your audience may not realize that Jews could pray, all people could pray at the Western Wall, that last remnant of an outer wall of the Jewish temple that existed 2,000 years ago. And Jews could go up to what was once the site of the Jewish temples, but they’re not allowed to pray there. They’re actually excluded from praying there. Only Muslims could pray there. So there are just certain demands that aren’t realistic. And as 2017 wound down, it seemed to me that the peace plan that we were going to put forth, which ended up not coming out for several years, would be difficult for President Abbas to engage in. Hopefully at some point, either that will change with him or the next leader that the Palestinians, at least the Palestinians in Judea and Samaria will have.

Mr. Jekielek:

And there were two parts to this, right? There was this kind of peace process, but there was also the kind of the economic opportunity piece. And I remember you described, this is something that I frankly didn’t remember very well, there was a whole conference in Warsaw and then in Bahrain subsequently where you were kind of rolling out, well, the economic opportunity, the benefits that would come with some sort of a successful peace process.

Mr. Greenblatt:

Yes. It’s also a really important point that people forget, that you can sign a peace agreement, but if it’s not a successful peace agreement, if whatever the Palestinians create or is created for them isn’t successful, it’s in everybody’s worst interest to have a failed Palestinian state or a failed Palestinian entity. So maybe because we came from the business world, it was very important for Jared and President Trump to actually create an economically viable Palestinian economy. 

I remember the arguments I used to have with the Palestinian leadership over trying to explain to them that it’s a win-win for them. If we succeed at making peace, then it’s realistically going to take anywhere from a year to four years under the Trump administration to actually get to a peace accord, then they’re going to be that much ahead when the peace accord is signed, because we’ll also at the same time will have been focused on helping to build their economy. Who wouldn’t want that?

And if we weren’t successful, well, their economy needs a lot of help. Why don’t you want to make the economy better for your people? And if there was one refrain that I heard time and time again from Palestinians, ordinary Palestinians, it was similar to the one I heard. There was one incident where I met Bibi Netanyahu. He was extolling the virtues of the sale of Mobileye for this incredible amount of money. And later on, I was at a Palestinian entrepreneur gathering, a bunch of young Palestinians, and one of them came up to me and he said, “Jason, help us build and sell our own version of Mobileye.” And that really resonated with me and it resonated with President Trump.

And that’s just one example of a Palestinian who complained bitterly about the economy. So all we wanted to do was help on the economy and all we got was resistance, culminating in the Bahrain conference that you mentioned that Jared had created, where the Palestinian Authority boycotted it. They tried to get other countries not to join and not to help. And in some cases, arrested some Palestinians that were brave enough to actually go to the Bahrain conference. After we left the conference, we got news that some people were imprisoned and we had to work very hard to get them out of prison.

Mr. Jekielek:

So you mentioned there’s this basically kind of two authorities in the Palestinian territories. And so in these arrests, this isn’t something you typically hear about.

Mr. Greenblatt:

Correct. So there are many examples. People talk about the oppression of the Palestinian people, and the finger’s always pointed at Israel. It’s just not true. The Palestinian leadership in Ramallah doesn’t give the type of freedom that Palestinians deserve in the West Bank, another name for Judea and Samaria. And that’s not to say that Israel is perfect. There are imperfections in how the society works, largely because of the security troubles. When you have a dangerous region, invariably if you want to keep your country safe, your citizens safe, there are rules and restrictions that fold into place and that causes anything from inconvenience to significant impact, negative impact on people’s lives. But nobody focuses on how Palestinians don’t have a free press, they don’t really have a free society, because of their own leadership. And that’s in the West Bank. That’s to say nothing of what Palestinians get under Hamas rule in Gaza.

Israel is not part of Gaza anymore. They withdrew years ago, much to their detriment, many would argue. And it’s true that Israel and Egypt do restrict movement of people in and out of Gaza, as well as goods. One of the reasons they restrict movement of goods into Gaza, let’s just take cement or concrete for example, is because Hamas takes that concrete and instead of building schools and hospitals, they divert much of that to be used to build tunnels with which they then use to try to attack Israel. They’re called terror tunnels. They abscond with so much of the good things that would be allowed in, so Israel and Egypt have to take a very strong view as to what they can and can’t allow in. There are lots of other examples, but I would say those are some of the ways that the Palestinians are oppressed by their own leaders.

Mr. Jekielek:

It is always described as a kind of intractable problem. Where was the first breakthrough?

Mr. Greenblatt:

I’m not sure I’d say it was a breakthrough, but the first light bulb, perhaps, that went off in my head was in March of 2017. I went to the Arab League Summit and I met the foreign ministers and some of the leaders of many of the Arab countries. And I remember leaving several of those meetings, thinking to myself, how is it possible that I could leave the room after discussion with people that I had always learned were enemies of the Jews or enemies of Israel, anti-Israel, very pro-Palestinian, and yet agree on ranging, depending on the country, anywhere from 70 to perhaps as high as 95 perecent of what was said in those rooms? And I can’t get into the specifics of it, but it was eye-opening to me. And many of them had said that while they’re tremendously supportive of the Palestinian people, they’re frustrated with President Abbas’s leadership—his inability to sit down and talk with Israel.

They’re certainly frustrated by the terrorism in Gaza. They were all very against it. They fight their own version of Gaza. And I would say that was almost the first time I thought, maybe there’s actually hope here. And the hope could rest with the leadership of the neighboring countries. Maybe they could support President Abbas so he could be courageous and brave enough to engage with the Israelis. And there are many examples along the way of things like that. Probably the next, and this is a negative light bulb, but it really shows people the heart of the Palestinian leadership. When President Trump kept his promise to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, and let’s remember that every president before him said that, he is the only one that actually followed through. He’s the only one that didn’t sign this national security waiver not to follow through on his promise, but nobody could accuse him of not having given them a heads up that he planned to do it.

The worst that people could accuse, or the Palestinians could accuse President Trump of was he’s actually a man who kept his promise. But when he kept his promise, the Palestinians cut ties with us and said, “We are never going to engage with you, not on your peace plan and not on anything else. We’re going to wait you out.” So when we saw that, and at the time I probably thought six months or a year, and then they’ll be back. Turned out they didn’t come back. I realized that they weren’t very serious about helping their people. A serious leadership would say, “I don’t agree with what you did on Jerusalem.”

And eventually, when President Trump released his plan, “I don’t agree with your peace plan, but let’s sit down and at least try. Let us tell you what’s wrong with the peace plan. Let us go through it line by line and figure out why this isn’t the right result or why the Palestinians deserve X or Y or Z and not what you gave them.” But instead, the comments coming out of the leadership were things like, “We hope the peace plan is born dead.” They didn’t pick it up. They didn’t read it, or if they read it, nobody knew that they read it. And they were completely unwilling to engage on it. That’s not serious leadership.

Mr. Jekielek:

Well, let’s talk a little bit about this moving of the embassy to Jerusalem. Of course, it was the law of the land that that should be the case. Well, still is. But there was this waiver that kept getting signed again and again. I think President Trump actually signed it once, early on, and which made a lot of people think he was going to kind of just follow the status quo. Why is this so shocking? And I guess, what was the reaction when people started realizing that this was a serious thing?

Mr. Greenblatt:

I think people felt that the national security waiver was there for a reason. And the reason was so a presidential candidate could make a promise and not have to follow through. What they didn’t realize is that Trump’s a guy who means business. He may not be able to get everything done that he says, but he’s certainly going to work really hard to try. And I think you’re right, when he signed the first one, I think it was in May of 2017, every six months, people, the sort of intellectual class, the diplomatic class, the peace expert class, all felt… They took a sigh of relief and said, “Oh, he’s not serious either. It’ll be fine.” But once we really started to go through the process, and it was quite an extensive interagency process, so many of the U.S. government agencies had to be involved. And once the decision was made, you cannot imagine the pressure that came to bear on President Trump to not follow through with the decision. He was getting calls from world leaders all over.

Jared Kushner and I were getting calls in the White House. Others, probably our national security advisor, I’m sure the chief of staff, essentially saying, don’t do it. Blood is going to be spilled in the streets. You’re going to cause World War III, you’re going to alienate all of our allies. There were threats, but President Trump is not a guy who… He’s no wallflower. He believed it was the right thing to do. He wanted to follow U.S. law. He wanted to correct a historical wrong. And he did it. And what happened? Nothing. I don’t want to criticize past presidents. I wasn’t in the room. I didn’t read the intelligence reports that they were reading so I have no idea what they were told. But I was in the room so many times when President Trump and others were told not to do it and why they shouldn’t do it. And clearly he made the right decision.

Mr. Jekielek:

So this is actually something quite interesting that you mention in the book, that often, in your analysis, when you look back, the times when progress was made, strong-minded decisions were made, decisions which a lot of people would criticize and say, this will clearly kill any discussion in the future. And subsequent to that, some breakthroughs are made or some shifts were. You said that this is something that you actually were able to discover, looking at the historical record.

Mr. Greenblatt:

Well, let’s take the Jerusalem recognition announcement. So if you look closely at President Trump’s speech, and I would encourage people to read it, the very end of it says that he wasn’t taking a position on the borders of Jerusalem. And I don’t remember the exact words, but something along the lines of he prayed for peace for Israel and the Palestinians.

[Sound bite/Donald Trump]:

We want an agreement that is a great deal for the Israelis and a great deal for the Palestinians. We are not taking a position of any final status issues, including the specific boundaries of the Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem or the resolution of contested borders.

Mr. Greenblatt:

He bucked tradition. He followed U.S. law of a bucked tradition, because U.S. law doesn’t mean that the people involved, the people in charge actually are interested in following U.S. law. Even the people who are knowledgeable about it. I remember a conversation. I was on a panel. I don’t want to say where, I can’t say where, but a journalist who’s very knowledgeable about this file, has been writing about it for years, asked me a question and said, “Why didn’t President Trump exact a penalty out of Israel when he recognized Jerusalem as the capital, and especially when he moved the embassy?” And I was sort of incredulous at the question because what U.S. law says is Jerusalem is the capital. You need to move the embassy. And the only reason not to is if you feel, if the president feels that you could sign a national security waiver. If you can’t sign the national security waiver, then you need to follow the law.

So I said to him, “Exacting a penalty out of Israel isn’t following U.S. law. It doesn’t say use it as a bargaining tool against Israel. It doesn’t say get something when you do it. It says, black and white, either you believe there’s a national security reason not to do it, so don’t do it. Or if you don’t believe there is, then do it.” And I don’t remember the answer. I’d like to think it was a grunt of recognition, but it was a grunt. Clearly he didn’t agree with me. But people have a complete misunderstanding of issues like this, and when we weren’t afraid, because we did work for an unusual president, he wasn’t a politician, he wasn’t afraid to say what was in his heart and what was on his mind, sometimes to his detriment, we were able to buck tradition and look at things differently than some who had done this in the past.

Mr. Jekielek:

What’s another example, or maybe the starkest example in your mind, of something that’s grossly misunderstood about the region or the circumstances there?

Mr. Greenblatt:

One example would be this whole East Jerusalem is the capital of the Palestinians. There was an event at the City of David. The City of David is a historic area near the Western Wall in the Old City of Jerusalem, where they’ve made a lot of historic discoveries about King David, including very recently a road that led from a pool, called the Shiloah Pool, where Jews would come and immerse themselves in water. I should say maybe pilgrims, because I don’t think it was just Jews. And then they would walk up to the Temple Mount through a tunnel. And they actually discovered this tunnel some years ago, they’re digging it out. They’re continuing to dig it out. I was actually there with my family a couple of weeks ago. It’s quite a remarkable find.

They had an official opening, and at the opening, somebody thought it would be kind of a nice idea to put a paper mache or maybe a little bit stronger than a paper mache closure on the opening of the tunnel and break into that to sort of symbolize that they were opening this tunnel, even though much of the tunnel had been dug already. You can’t imagine the press. They went wild. Because in order to open this tunnel, we were holding sledgehammers, because we were sort of pretending to break into this archeological discovery. And the headlines that blared across the world were things like, “David Friedman and Jason Greenblatt are knocking down Palestinian homes in Silwan.” Silwan is the Arab neighborhood adjacent to what is the City of David. Nothing could be further from the truth.

First of all, Silwan is not on top of the entrance where we were opening. And second of all, that entrance was open. This was nothing more than a paper mache or slightly stronger than paper mache. And then the other things that came out were, this was the late Saeb Erekat, this was one of his favorite words, that the Jews or Israel is Judaizing the city of Jerusalem, as if Jerusalem has no Jewish history, which is an outrageous, baseless accusation. 

Anyway, I came back to the White House and I said to one of my NSC guys, “Could you tell me, because now I’ve been here a long time and I have yet to find a piece of paper that says that East Jerusalem belongs to the Palestinians. Where does that come from?” So he didn’t have an answer, which is surprising. This is a guy who’s been working on this file for a long time, knows his stuff. He told me he’d come back to me. He didn’t come back that day. He didn’t come back the next day. He didn’t come back two days later.

I called him up, asked him to come by, maybe the third day. And I said, “Well, what’s the answer?” And he was a little bit sheepish, and he said, “It’s just there is no piece of paper. It’s just what people have been saying for so many years. So now it’s like gospel. People say it, therefore it’s true.” It was shocking to me. So I ended up making a speech in front of the UN Security Council saying just that. 

People like to say that I went rogue. I didn’t go rogue, I heavily negotiated that speech with the State Department. And the crux of that speech was an aspiration for the Palestinians to have a capital in East Jerusalem is not a right. You could imagine that did not go over well in the Security Council. I think the German ambassador attacked me. Not physically. I don’t think the French were particularly pleased. The UK, I think, was pretty rational about it. But there are so many myths about this conflict. One of them happens to be about Jerusalem and in particular East Jerusalem.

Mr. Jekielek:

I imagine people would say, well, look, you’re just taking the Israeli side on everything. So why should we talk to you? Why should we take you seriously? You deserve to be attacked.

Mr. Greenblatt:

I got that in the press from time to time. I don’t think I ever got it from my interlocutors. Instead, what I think I got was interlocutors who understood that they were dealing with somebody who understood the file from both sides. I learned the file on the Palestinian side because the Palestinians were very helpful, as were my colleagues in the U.S. government. But I also knew the file on the Israeli side and on the Jewish side. So if Saeb Erekat would make a comment about how we were Judaizing the city of Jerusalem, I could challenge that. He didn’t like that, he wasn’t happy about that, but he respected it. I think people may have felt that the peace plan was more of a Bibi Netanyahu peace plan, but let’s not forget that there are many people on the Israeli right who didn’t like the peace plan.

They don’t want to see any Palestinian state in any way, shape or form. So it’s not as if we didn’t get our criticism on the Israeli side too, in particular on the right, maybe on the extreme left. That’s probably another myth. People think that everybody knows how this conflict is going to be resolved. And depending on who you are, you sort of lay it out. There’s nobody who knows how this conflict is going to be resolved. There is no resolution that everybody is going to be able to be happy with. If it’s going to be resolved, and it’s a big if, it’s going to be resolved by compromise, hard negotiations, hard compromises, but not in the manner in which people have been saying that there’s going to be, for example, on the Palestinian side, a fully sovereign Palestinian state with no Jews living in, perhaps not visiting in, on the borders, and not really borders, but on the armistice lines from 1967, with all of East Jerusalem as its capital with Palestinian… They’re not even Palestinian refugees.

They’re called refugees. They’re actually children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren of the original refugees. That class, probably the only one of its kind in the world, moving back into what is now Israel. Those are unrealistic demands. They’re unrealistic solutions. People could criticize our plan, but at least it was a realistic plan and an implementable plan. Maybe people have to negotiate it. Both sides should get in the room and try. 

But our plan was not an unrealistic or unimplementable plan. The demands from the Palestinian side, well, there are two kinds. There’s Hamas, which is eradicate Israel. That’s never going to happen. And then there’s the Palestinian Authority, or the PLO, who have made demands that I don’t think will ever come to pass. So I’m totally comfortable trying to meet the Palestinian demands to make them as successful as they can be, to have them have as much freedom and opportunity and even a state, that’s possible, but it can’t be a state that leaves Israel hanging and in danger.

It can’t be like what happened in Gaza where Israel withdrew and now they have effectively, a terrorist state. It’s not actually a state, but a terrorist state on their border that’s constantly attacking Israel with rockets, with balloons and other flying devices that have flames on them that burn fields and injure people, with these terror attack tunnels. It has to be something that makes sense. 

I’m also against uprooting anybody, Palestinian or Israeli, from the West Bank. If you’re going to make peace, then the people should be able to live in peace. If you’re telling me the only way to make peace is to uproot every single Jew from Judea and Samaria, well, first of all, Judea and Samaria is the heartland of Jewish history. Jews have been there for thousands of years. There’s no reason historically to remove them, but more important from a practical perspective, what kind of peace is that? When I was in Israel a few weeks ago, we were going to visit a Palestinian, or actually an Israeli-Arab friend of mine, but he was in the Palestinian territories.

And you get to these areas where you have these big red signs, ‘No Israeli allowed beyond this point.’ Now as an American, I’m not Israeli, I could have gone. But the subtext of that is no Jew allowed beyond this point. And it’s true, it’s an Israeli sign. It’s not a Palestinian sign. But it’s there to protect people. The danger of a Jewish person walking around some Palestinian areas in areas A and B and certainly in Gaza, where I wouldn’t feel comfortable, those are real. And if you can’t create a society where those threats don’t exist, then you’re not really creating peace, are you?

Mr. Jekielek:

This refugee question is very interesting. For example, a lot of people aren’t aware that there’s a dedicated agency to Palestinian refugees, and the rules around what makes one a refugee are different from the standard UN refugees scenario. And so maybe you can kind of speak to that briefly.

Mr. Greenblatt:

Yes. It’s an important topic as well. Most argue that that is the only class of refugees that is treated this way, where it’s an inherited refugee status. So let’s say my parents, for example, who fled Hungary, who wanted at the start of the Holocaust or close to the start of the Holocaust, one in 1956 were refugees. But I’m not a refugee and I can’t claim I’m a refugee. Palestinians, though, are allowed to claim refugee status generation after generation, after generation. 

The world spends an enormous amount of money helping these refugees, or these so-called refugees. Many of them actually live in these decrepit camps because they’re used as political pawns. There’s no reason why they need to live this many years after the conflict in these camps. The goal of a refugee agency, whether it’s at the UN or elsewhere, should be to repurpose their lives, to be able to give them a new future, not to keep them in these terrible camps where they don’t have a future.

And there are many Palestinians who have escaped those camps and have built beautiful lives in different countries; here in the United States and Canada and the United Kingdom and plenty of other places. But so many of them are stuck there, and that’s a real shame. So this agency is funded by lots of money. It runs practically bankrupt, every year, they spend more than they have. A lot of the money is misused. It’s a corrupt organization and they’re always begging for money. And we tried, President Trump tried to retool the agency. He cut funding. He did it in two parts. He cut half the amount of money. And the U.S. is the biggest funder to the Palestinians, generally speaking. He cut half and basically said, “You have a year to figure out how to repurpose this agency to give these people a better future.” He wasn’t saying, give up whatever claims you think you might have.

That’s a different issue. That gets either resolved or doesn’t get resolved as part of a peace negotiation. But he was saying stop funding these camps and this antisemitic anti-Israel education that’s taught in these camps and figure out a better way to treat these people in a way that they can have better lives. But the world wasn’t ready for it. Think of how many employees of this agency would lose their jobs if we actually did away with the agency and made the lives of the Palestinian people better. So the next year, he cut the funding entirely, again to the outrage of the world. It’s much easier for the world to write checks into this problem and throw money at it instead of trying to fix the problem and give the Palestinians better lives. But that’s not Trump’s mindset. That’s not the mindset of a business person. He’s not a politician. His goal is to make things better, not just pay into a system using taxpayer money for a broken cause.

Mr. Jekielek:

Let’s talk briefly about that. Obviously, you worked with him for a long time prior to government. What’s it like working with the man?

Mr. Greenblatt:

I loved it. It was exciting. It was always interesting. He was always respectful to me. I know he has some reputation, based on the mainstream media, that he’s this, that or the other thing. But I could think in the 20 years I worked for him in the private sector before the three at the White House, I can think of one disagreement that we had together, which says a lot. He’s creative, always interested in hearing from people. I know sometimes the press would like to say, “Oh, he asks different people different things.” That’s how he learns. So for example, I remember one time very early in my career there, I was a lawyer working on a deal. I gave him the deal points and he wanted to speak to somebody who was running the building, like an operations person, about a particular issue. And at first I was surprised, but then I realized, but that makes a lot of sense.

What do I know about… I think the issue was the foot traffic in the building, both in the hallways and the elevators and things like that. I don’t know that. I’m a lawyer. I don’t know the building’s operations. And he called this other person in and he synthesized everything that I was telling him, along with the information he was getting from others who were actually working on these issues. And then he came to his conclusions. So I’ve always found him to be curious, very decisive. Sometimes he went along with my recommendations and other times he didn’t. And just a really interesting synthesizer of information. If we came up with X, he wanted to know why we couldn’t do two X or three X. Why did we have to do it that way?

Why not this way? Always creative. Sometimes the ideas worked, other times we had to explain why they wouldn’t work. He might challenge us on when we pushed back and we’d have a healthy dialogue on it. And then if he agreed with us, he would back off. And if he didn’t agree with us, he would ask us to move forward with his direction, as is the right of a guy who was elected to be president of the United States.

Mr. Jekielek:

I thought the Abraham Accords were kind of a minor miracle while watching from the outside, certainly not something I was expecting to see. And then I subsequently thought to myself, there’s a kind of a genius to it in a way, in the sense that it doesn’t actually require the U.S. to stay as the broker.

Mr. Greenblatt:

The Abraham Accords don’t need the United States to continue to flourish. If the country is involved, and hopefully other countries want to, they can grow them out in amazing ways. Having the U.S. on board and encouraging them and convening is certainly helpful, but they don’t need the U.S. One of the ways we did damage until recently is President Biden’s distance or perhaps disrespect of some of our key allies, including Saudi Arabia and even the United Arab Emirates. When you disrespect your allies and you let them think to themselves, maybe we can’t rely on the United States anymore, that weakens the foundations of the relationship between the U.S. and its allies and therefore it weakens things associated with the U.S., such as the Abraham Accords. I think President Biden has tried to turn a page when he went to visit Saudi Arabia, and I think he did turn a page with Saudi Arabia. I think there’s many more pages to turn in that chapter, but he did the right thing going there.

And hopefully, we’re past that. But we still have the Iran deal, right? If he signs an Iran deal that’s similar to the Iran deal that was signed under the Obama administration, perhaps something worse, it’s not going to be longer and stronger by all accounts, which is what they promised us, but it seems it’s going to be similar or worse, that’s also going to potentially rock the foundations of the region in many unhelpful ways. 

So I think back when people were upset about Jerusalem, the Jerusalem announcement by President Trump, the recognition as being the capital of Israel, that wasn’t rocking the foundations of safety. That wasn’t potentially putting people at risk. That might have put a bunch of crazy nuts to start some negative activity and try to create terror attacks or whatever. I don’t want to make light of that. But that wasn’t going to rock the foundations of safety and security in the region.

The Iran deal will and I’m a little bit surprised that the world went so crazy when President Trump recognized Jerusalem as the capital, but doesn’t recognize the real, tremendous security threat to the region, both nuclear and terror, from an Iranian deal with this murderous Iranian regime. And that’s how the U.S. could play a negative role and undermine not only the Abraham Accords, but our relationships with our key allies, and the impact of that could be tremendous. 

You think we have oil problems now with what’s happening in Ukraine, between Ukraine and Russia. Imagine the kind of problems we’re going to have if stability and security in the Middle East are rocked with a deal that doesn’t make sense with Iran. And worse, if there is a deal and then Iran takes action through that deal, what’s going to happen, whether it’s in a year from now or 10 years from now? It’s a very, very dangerous game.

Mr. Jekielek:

Based on your tenure, how is Iran ultimately viewed in the region by these different actors?

Mr. Greenblatt:

The countries of the region view Iran as strong, strategic, but a tremendous threat. I think that Iran wants nothing more than to destroy Israel and to take over those other countries and put their religious ideology into all of those Muslim countries and then eventually attack the United States, and maybe they’re after Europe. I certainly think that Israel understands that and I think the leadership in the region would probably say I’m not very wrong on that point. 

Having said that, seeing what’s happening with the Biden administration, you’re now seeing the region be pragmatic. They’re redeveloping ties with Iran. They’re potentially exchanging ambassadors again. What’s their choice? I know people are complaining about it, but if I were sitting with the leader of the UAE or Saudi, I would say, not a bad idea, because the reality is if Biden is going to sign a deal and we’re going to be left with this threat, you could either hope for the best or try to at least make it better under these new circumstances.

Mr. Jekielek:

You left the administration after almost three years, to much speculation as to why you were leaving. Many of the people who worked with President Trump have kind of suffered for that, for doing that in the first place. What’s been your situation?

Mr. Greenblatt:

I haven’t suffered at all. I mean, I’m proud that I worked in the Trump administration. I’m proud that I worked for President Trump. I think we accomplished some amazing things. I’m not saying President Trump is perfect, but I also know, having been on the inside, how much of what people are told, how much is in the news media, is not accurate, is misleading. I wouldn’t change what I did for a second. I did go home because my wife and then six kids, now I have two son-in-laws, so let’s say eight kids. I missed them. I would’ve missed the courtship of my daughters when they started dating these two amazing young men who’ve since married them. I would’ve missed out on more time with my family. I lived apart from them for nearly three years.

They were in New Jersey, I was in Washington. So my time, as they say, was up. I finished the peace agreement or the peace proposal. We were in a waiting pattern for numerous Israeli elections that happened. The Abraham Accords, while in theory was on the road to happening potentially, nobody knew if it would and when it would, if ever. So I decided to be a husband and a father again.

Mr. Jekielek:

And so what’s next for you now?

Mr. Greenblatt:

I spend most of my time connecting Israeli and American companies with countries and companies in the Gulf. I think the Gulf is a bit misunderstood. Qatar is only one example, Saudi Arabia would be another. I think that region is really on an upward trajectory in so many different ways. It’s a very exciting region. They’re undergoing so many positive, dramatic changes. And I think people here in the U.S. and people in Israel don’t quite understand the region. And I continue to work to build bridges between the US, Israel and the Gulf—people bridges, business bridges, understanding bridges. And that’s how I keep my foot in the door.

Mr. Jekielek:

Well, Jason Greenblatt, it’s such a pleasure to have you on the show.

Mr. Greenblatt:

Thank you. Thanks for the in depth and really useful discussion.

Mr. Jekielek:

Thank you all for joining Jason Greenblatt and me on this episode of American Thought Leaders. I’m your host, Jan Jekielek.

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

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